Montana doesn’t have a medical school. So, for the past 40 years, the state has paid part of the educational expenses for classes of 20 medical students per school year.
In that time, Montana’s population has grown. And, importantly, our population is aging. By the time students starting medical school this fall start their practice, nearly 25 percent of Montana’s population will be over age 65.
We need more doctors, especially primary care doctors who can work in towns big and small.
The Board of Regents made training more doctors a priority last year. Outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Gov. Steve Bullock requested an increase in the number of subsidized medical education slots from 20 to 30. The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education has approved adding five slots.
"We appreciate what they did, and we are hopeful that they will add five more. There's still time for that," said Jean Branscum, executive director of Montana Medical Association.
Montana sponsors medical students entering the University of Washington Medical School’s WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho) program. The Montana students complete their first year at Montana State University in Bozeman and then transfer to the medical school in Seattle where Montana pays about two-thirds of their tuition for three years. Many of these WWAMI students come back to Billings, Glendive, Sidney, Kalispell and other Montana communities for part of their medical school clinical studies. Others have graduated and returned to Billings for the Montana Family Medicine Residency, and then stayed to work in Montana.
Every other state in WWAMI — except Montana — has increased its number of students in the past several years.
The case for more WWAMI students is supported by research from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. The BBER’s 38th Annual Economic Outlook Seminar, which is being presented statewide this month, focuses on “The Best Medicine.”
One way Montana can take charge of its health in a changing market is to ensure that it trains doctors.
According to Gregg Davis, BBER health care director, the number of primary care physicians in Montana is 51 per 100,000 people. That rate “falls well below the generally accepted national threshold of 60 to 85 primary care physicians per 100,000,” Davis wrote.
The National Association of Community Health Centers estimates that 150,000 Montanans are without access to a primary care provider, Davis noted.
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners also deliver primary care throughout Montana. There aren’t enough of these professionals either.
WWAMI makes medical school affordable for bright, young Montana students. Most will still have upwards of $150,000 in educational debts when they graduate.
We call on Montana lawmakers to support WWAMI and add at least five students to future classes.